115: James Otter/Wooden Ships

James Otter at Otter Surfboards HQ. Photo: Mat Arney

“We’re all on our own journey, trying to understand what’s going on in this world. But we all benefit from helping each other; we don’t benefit from hating and wanting the worst from each other.”

Could a wooden surfboard change your life? It wasn’t a question I was expecting to ask when I travelled down to Porthtowan to meet James Otter of Otter Surfboards for the first episode of my Cornish omnibus.

I thought we’d be discussing the backstory of Otter Surfboards, finding out how James got into wooden surfboard shaping and design, and delving into the history of this venerable practise.

Otter detail. Photo: Mat Arney

Of course, we did cover all that. But in the tradition of all the best Looking Sideways conversations, this chat took on a life of its own, and strayed into some wholly unexpected territory.Like how we humans have a preternatural connection to wood, something which fuels our innate creativity. And how the business model behind Otter evolved unexpectedly, the meaning of which deepens for James with every passing year.

Me and James Otter. Photo: Matt Arney

And, above all, how the simple act of building a wooden surfboard might just have the power to help you make sense of your life, as it has done for James and the countless others who have joined him in the act of creating their own wooden craft.

My thanks to James and Mat Arney of Hailer Media for their hospitality and help, and to my friends at the Watergate Bay Hotel for hosting me during this trip. Listen to the episode now:

Show Notes

  • “The sun is out”.
  • James’ new space.
  • Surfing first thing.
  • Local surf spots.
  • “Not that I don’t like people”.
  • Judgement in sport.
  • ‘Designer Maker’ course.
  • His draw to wood.
  • “I think we all have a connection to wood”.
  • From walking sticks to skate ramps.
  • Freedom to work with wood.
  • The Surfer’s Path Wood Issue.
  • Discovering the connection between wood and surfing.
  • The wooden board world.
  • Dog on the couch.
  • “I still don’t know until I have a go”.
  • “Life would be boring if we just did the same thing”.
  • His first board.
  • Replicating short boards.
  • The first surf.
  • Collaborating with Alan Stokes.
  • Wood’s momentum.
  • The hybrid performance board.
  • Accountant parents.
  • The practical need for starting the business.
  • The ‘How-To’ craft market world.
  • His workshops.
  • The concept of competition.
  • Hopeful thoughts.
  • “Every class is different”.
  • Teaching adults.
  • Getting along well with people.
  • Avoiding conflict.
  • Self-worth.
  • “How do you make it welcoming for all?”
  • Saying the same thing in different ways.
  • Having the “right” surfboard.
  • Creating blockers.
  • “How do you see yourself surfing in ten years time?”.
  • Listening to what you’re drawn to.
  • Five days to make a board.
  • Customer ownership.
  • Board finishing.
  • Class reunions.
  • Making boards for fun.
  • Woods vs foam.
  • Repairs.
  • Winter reset.
  • Following the good feelings.

People Mentioned

Places Mentioned

  • Cornwall, UK
  • Porthtowan, UK
  • London, UK
  • Plymouth, UK
  • Maldives
  • Japan
  • The Three Valleys, France